NSW Drought

Sydney to Broken Hill – A Road Trip

With New South Wales in the grip of a severe drought, and time to spare, I am off on a short outback road trip from Sydney to Broken Hill. We will take nine days and eight nights to drive there and back. Travelling slowly will mean time to see the country, meet locals and contribute in a small way to the rural Australian economy.

Planning for our Road trip

Often, for my family, a car trip means getting from A to B as quickly as possible. It involves waking early, packing the car and driving all day. Only recently have we come to recognise the value in slowing down, taking our time and to quote that old cliché “smell the roses”. I have walking the Camino to thank for that.

The Camino also taught me (someone who likes to be organised and plans for every contingency) that not planning and going with the flow can deliver unexpected rewards. That’s how we approached this road trip. We would drive around four to five hours each day stopping in towns along the way and diverting to places of interest as they showed themselves.

Our Accommodation

Apart from booking our first night’s accommodation, we decided to wing it and look for accommodation when we arrived at our destination for the night. The last stop would be Broken Hill and we’d work out our route home from there.

Road trip Sydney to Broken Hill

Side Trip

Sydney to Broken Hill

Some feed here

A quick look at a map provided a rough idea of where to aim for each night. Having no plans at all would be foolhardy in the outback and that of course goes right against the grain. So, we decided to sleep at Mudgee – Nyngan – Wilcannia and Broken Hill (2 nights) and hopefully take a different route home.

Packing was also rather haphazard. Done at the last minute (never a good idea) with a quick look at expected temperatures, I threw a few things into a bag and hoped for the best. Mostly it worked, but a couple of decisions could have been better thought through.

Day One: Sydney to Mudgee

I wake up feeling unwell possibly due to something I ate. Instead of putting off the trip for a day, my husband drives and I lay back in my seat, pretty much missing day one of the road trip.

Outback letterbox

Outback letterbox

Outback letterboxes

and another

We pass old model cars covered in stickers and decorated in a variety of themes. They are entrants in a Variety Bash fundraising rally, driving 4400km from Bonnyrigg to Braitling (near Alice Springs). Car spotting adds an extra dimension to our trip. We overtake a few and pass others. An internet search informs us that they will spend their first night at West Wyalong and the next in Broken Hill. This is good news for us – otherwise we may not find accommodation.

Some of the vehicles have ‘personalised’ number plates. Two almost life size two dimensional kangaroos face each other across the cab of “Dinkum”. “Roar” has a large tiger strapped to the roof of the car and two orange flags flying from either side of the boot. “Batboy” of course is decked out with a batman symbol.

Lithgow

Lithgow has been heavily promoted on Instagram so we turn off in search of something to eat. The temperature in Lithgow is less than 10oC, rather a shock to the system after the 25oC of yesterday. Still feeling under the weather, the planned walk around town doesn’t eventuate. Instead we make do with a drive down a couple of streets.

Many building facades date back to the early days of the town. An old cinema and the Court House are worth a closer look. An installation of books and ants by Lithgow artist Tim Johnman adds interest to the Library Wall in Burns Lane. We pass other artworks in the main street and I’m sure there are more to find. So many Councils are creatively using public artworks to beautify and add interest to their streets.

Mudgee Accommodation

Mudgee Accommodation

Nyngan Accommodation

Nyngan Accommodation

We’re staying in a cabin in a caravan park in Mudgee for our first night. The simply furnished cabin at Ingenia Holiday Park is clean and tidy with all we need. I climb into bed as soon as we arrive and don’t stir until morning. It is really cold and I sleep in a jumper to keep warm. In the morning I find the electric blanket.

Day Two: Mudgee to Nyngan

In the morning I feel better, but now hubby has the bug and I drive. Roadkill, mostly kangaroos and wallabies lines the road at all too frequent intervals. Why don’t people drive slower and stay off the road at dawn and dusk?

After a short distance on the main road Suzie, our GPS, directs us to the quaintly named Magpie Lane. Alone, we follow the dirt road, driving between tall eucalypts and past small farms. Ending up on the Golden Highway, a psychedelic rhino greets me at the entrance to Dubbo.

Western Plains Zoo

Colourful Rhino

New Dubbo Cemetery

Cheerful Flowers in Cemetery

Dubbo

In the New Dubbo Cemetery, the rows of low grey grave stones contrast with numerous bunches of bright flowers. Never having seen so much colour in a cemetery, I stop to investigate. Plastic flowers of all varieties fill jars and containers to celebrate the lives of those who are remembered here.

There is another rhinoceros outside the Information Centre. This one, with its thick grey wrinkly skin, looks more real. There are more and more colourful rhinos dotted around the town. Of course, people come to Dubbo to visit the Western Plains Zoo.

Exploring Dubbo

Hubby rests in the car while I take a walk around. Panels describe sections of two Heritage Trails. One focuses on Society and Culture, the other on Crime and Punishment.

Street Art in Dubbo

They won the competition

Dubbo Library

Dubbo Library Wall

Four quite different street art murals decorate a laneway is decorated. One, titled “The Great National Lifeway” is a road sign with a difference. Another promotes acceptance between people of different cultures. A man explains that Council held a competition for street artists to display their work on this wall which is called “Alley Gallery”. There is more street art in the Council Car Park and on the Library wall.

Further on a busker wearing a bandana plays his guitar and sings to a young child. “If you’re happy and you know it stamp your feet”. The child stamps his feet.

Flour Mill in Dubbo

Old Flour Mill in Dubbo

Dubbo Street Art

Faces of Dubbo

The watch maker and a shoe repairer each have their own shop in the high street (unlike the kiosks in shopping malls in the city). Nearby is a gun shop – this is the country after all.

An hour or two doesn’t do Dubbo justice. It is well worth making Dubbo the destination for a short city break to Dubbo.

Narromine Aviation Museum

After passing through Narromine we see a sign to the Narromine Aviation Museum. We look at each other and nod. Travelling slowly allows time for this kind of diversion. The Museum is housed in a large metal hanger, and we hesitantly enter a slightly ajar door at the end of a ramp, not quite sure if this is the right entrance.

At the far end of the darkened room a glow lights up a small red and white plane. As my eyes adjust to the dimly lit room, other exhibits emerge. A large fragile looking double winged glider that seems impossible to fly, historical aviation pictures and artefacts and a volunteer dozing off over his newspaper at a desk. He starts as we approach and greet him. It has been a slow morning.

Narromine Aviation Museum

Narromine Aviation Museum

The volunteer soon warms to his subject, animatedly telling the story of how the Corben Super Ace (the first Homebuilt Aircraft) came to be a highlight of the Museum’s display. Built in 1938 by Narromine local Jack Coomer, the plane later was bought by Tony Foran in 1965. He didn’t quite get to restore it as planned and the plane lay deteriorating in a shed for many years.

The tale of how a dedicated group of volunteers managed to get the plane from its dilapidated state to its current position as a highlight of the Museum’s display is amazing. Someone knew someone who knew someone else and they all chipped in with time and expertise.

This museum is evidence of a community at work. The enthusiasm and commitment to a project that paid off in spades. As we leave another car pulls up. A steady trickle of visitors to put something in the donation box towards the upkeep of this worthwhile and professionally displayed exhibition.

Narromine to Nyngan

The little hamlet of Nevertire (population of around 190) looks tired. One general store on the main road is open for thirsty or hungry travelers but other buildings are boarded up.

Sydney to Broken Hill Road Trip

Sights along the way

Cotton Farming in Australia

Cotton Bales

Cotton Farming

Small clumps of fluff appear on the roadside. It looks like wool, but the bare fields and huge bales lined up near the fence tell a different story. It’s cotton. In this dry land so near to ‘The Outback’ we are farming cotton. This is a divisive subject so I decide to investigate briefly to learn a little more about cotton farming. This article (produced by the cotton industry) explains a few things.

Along the way

A board of around 16 solar panels in a front yard angles up to the sky capturing the sun’s rays. This sparks a conversation about renewable energy. Later hubby comments that there must be a railway line here. He explains that the concrete grain silos over the T- intersection give it away as silos are always built near railway lines. Obvious now that I know.

Sydney to Broken Hill Road Trip

No one home today

Sydney to Broken Hill Road Trip

Along the way

After passing so much roadkill, it’s a pleasure to see a mob of kangaroos off the road in a field. Their heads and upper bodies are just visible above the dry brown grass. At least in this paddock the grass is long. Most of the fields are reduced to short dry stalks poking through the dry dirt.

We have entered big car country. The utes all have fierce looking roo bars (bull bars) and large tyres. The land is flat, flat, flat and ever so dry. The occasional flash of green is explained by an overhead irrigation sprayer.
Approaching Nyngan, a Pelican flies low over the trees on the roadside. Where did he come from?

Nyngan

The sign at the entrance to Nyngan welcomes visitors with “Welcome to Nyngan and The Outback”. We are now officially in the outback.

Nyngan is home to the Big Bogan, which stands to reason as Nyngan is in the Bogan Shire. The little town lies on the on the Bogan River. “Bogan” comes from the Aboriginal word for ‘birthplace of a King’. Quite different from the Australian stereotypical description of less sophisticated Australians.

Big Bogan Nyngan

Smaller of the two Big Bogans

Chinese Cemetery in Nyngan

Early Chinese Cemetery in Nyngan

One reason for staying in Nyngan is the ABC TV series Outback Roads. Our room at the Outback Motel is simple and dated but clean and all we need. That’s another thing that walking the Camino taught me – that luxuries are not necessities. All that is needed for a good night’s sleep are clean sheets and a shower.

A Walk Through the Town

After settling in, I take myself on a walk. Near the petrol station, an Aboriginal man and woman stand facing away from me beside a parked car.

I am embarrassed to say that I feel uncomfortable, my head filled with stories I’ve heard about Aboriginal violence and intimidation. I continue walking towards them, but shift my camera to the other shoulder. The man smiles and greets me as I pass. The woman they are waiting for emerges from the petrol station, they get in the car and drive off. Feeling angry with myself for submitting to negative stereotypes, I resolve to do better next time.

Cobb and Co

Cobb and Co

Nyngan

Building Detail

Years ago, if you didn’t arrive for dinner in a country town by 6pm you would miss out on your meal. And mostly the food was Chinese. Tonight, the RSL Bistro is busy with travellers and a few solo workers. Our roast lamb and veggies and steak and salad go down a treat.

Day Three: Nyngan to Wilcannia via Cobar

Before leaving Nyngan, we explore the town. The Mid-State Shearing Shed (open 9am -12pm Monday to Friday) is chock-a-block full of shearing memorabilia. As a born and bred city girl, I am pretty ignorant about shearing and farm life in general. This museum is a great opportunity to gain a greater understanding of life on the land.

Mid-State Shearing Shed

The volunteer explains the workings of an old baling machine, and the branding (this time with paint) used on bales of wool to describe the quality of the wool and which part of the sheep it comes from. He explains the tally books and shows me the Jack and Jill shears. “Jill” winds a handle to provide the power to the shears used by “Jack”.

Mid-State Shearing Shed Nyngan

Mid-State Shearing Shed

Mart's Cafe Nyngan

Mart’s Cafe

The Iroquois Helicopter

At first, I am puzzled by the Iroquois Helicopter, prominently displayed in front of the Museum. A visit to the museum clarified things for me and also explained the roadside sign of yesterday “Helicopter Flood Evacuation Site”. While the area is in drought today, in 1990, the Bogan River flooded and almost the entire Nyngan community was airlifted to safety by helicopter.

The woman at the museum directs us to Mart’s Café for breakfast. It seems that Mart has eaten in cafés in Sydney and tried to emulate the best of these. The menu is comprehensive and the display cabinet interesting. My frittata and Hubby’s bacon and tomato roll are delicious. And the coffee is good too.

Before leaving Nyngan, we fill up with petrol and I take the opportunity to chat to a truck driver. He says “yea it’s good” referring to driving a road train adding “Even better if you don’t have to go into the city”

Nyngan Solar Plant

Nyngan Solar Farm

Solar Farm

Nyngan Solar Plant

Over a million solar panels

Outside Nyngan is a turn off to the Nyngan Photovoltaic Solar Plant. The plant is currently the largest solar plant (140 megawatts) in the southern hemisphere with 1,350 000 panels. Apart from a low hum coming from the field of angled black panels, it is deathly quiet and there’s not a breath of wind. Ours is the only car parked on the red dirt in front of the specially erected viewing site.

Nyngan to Cobar

The scenery is constantly changing. The height and density of the bushes changes. The long flat road becomes less flat, rising and falling with slight undulations. The sand becomes redder and the undergrowth thinner.

A yellow warning sign propped up on the side of the road indicates a “long paddock”. A farmer whose land is unable to sustain his herd of cattle is making use of the grassy roadside to feed his cows.

The Long Paddock

The Long Paddock

Road Train

Road Train

Cobar is a mining town and the Fort Bourke Lookout an interesting side trip. The lookout provides a view of the New Cobar Mine, an active mine site that operates 24 hours per day every day of the year.

Cobar to Wilcannia

The road is long and straight. Small herds of goats and the occasional kangaroo or wallaby graze the sparse feed on the roadside. The soil is red. The climate, dry and hot and it’s almost impossible to imagine the area in flood although signs and depth indicators warn of floods. Heading west, in the early afternoon, we are now driving into the slowly lowering sun.

Entrance to Cobar

Entrance to Cobar

Fort Bourke Lookout

As Seen from Fort Bourke lookout

Emmdale Roadhouse

Emmdale Roadhouse provides a welcome place to stop and revive. A road train laden with hay bales stands silently on the edge of the car park, the forward tilting cabin indicates a problem. The driver, sitting at a table checking his phone, is waiting for a part.

When he finds out that we’re stopping in Wilcannia, he tells me that “they’ve separated the two warring clans [in Wilcannia]” but that he “wouldn’t stay there”. He has me worried as there’s not enough daylight to continue on to Broken Hill. It is not worth driving at dusk with so many kangaroos around.

Emmdale Roadhouse

Shooting Practice

Hay supplies in the drought

He has a problem

According to the truckie (and others we speak to), hay deliveries are nothing new – farmers in Queensland have been buying hay for two years and in NSW for more than a year. Many loads are paid for but donated hay is currently on its way to Condobolin.

Another traveller walks by and asks the truckie what the problem is. He offers to see if he has a suitable bolt so that the truckie can get on the road to deliver the much-needed hay.

Wilcannia

Warrawong on the Darling is a Caravan Park three kilometres outside of Wilcannia. Unfortunately, their cabins are fully booked and suggest we stay at Wilcannia Motel adding what sounds like a warning “we haven’t stayed there though”. Unless we brave the road to Broken Hill at dusk, we have no option.

Wilcannia Motel

Wilcannia Motel

Wilcannia wall art

Wall art in Wilcannia

Our room in the Wilcannia Motel is tired and basic but clean. Surprisingly there are the little toiletries you find in many good hotels as well as a kettle, tea and milk in the fridge. There is time for a walk around the town before a meal at the only place open for dinner – The Wilcannia Golf Club.

Many shops are boarded up. Two women smoke next to the security door of the general store. I’m looking for a lens cleaner and walk inside. A cursory look reveals well stocked shelves (but no lens cleaner) and a reasonable range of fresh fruit and vegetables.

We’re directed to the pharmacy. The shelves are sparsely stocked with only one or two of each item. The pharmacist who hails from Egypt came to Wilcannia four years ago. He also owns the pharmacy in Menindee and used to ‘commute’ between the two towns.

Wilcannia

Boarded up

Wilcannia

Boarded up

Our walk takes us along the river past the Historic Wilcannia bridge which was opened in 1896. You may be surprised to learn that Wilcannia was once one of Australia’s busiest inland ports. Sadly, its fortunes have changed.
The Darling is in a pitiful state. The water is green with algae and hardly flowing yet there are fish swimming in the river between a drowned bicycle and pram which poke out from the shallows.

We turn back, reluctant to walk past a group of young folk who are shouting and swearing at each other across the park. A woman walking two dogs greets us and stops for a chat.

She’s having a break from her city life for a year to teach at the Mission School. There are 23 children in three classes at the school. Attendance in her class is a problem. Of the eleven children enrolled, she usually only has nine each day.

Artwork by Wilcannia Local

Local Artwork

Wilcannia Heritage Bridge over Darling River

Heritage Bridge over Darling River

Before falling asleep, silly negative stereotypical thoughts pass through my head. Having been told things like “Don’t stop at Wilcannia, they’ll steal the tyres off your car” I wonder aloud if our car parked outside our room will still be in one piece when we wake up. Of course it is.

Day Four: Wilcannia to Broken Hill

In the morning, I take my camera and head out. Wilcannia is a photographer’s dream. An Aboriginal couple walking their dog greet me as I attempt to photograph a derelict church whose restoration seems to have halted. We exchange pleasantries and Willy tells me that the church was used as a shelter when the river flooded.

Heritage in Wilcannia

Restoration Halted

Wilcannia Post Office

Wilcannia Post Office

Staying right in town turns out to be a blessing in disguise. It is easy to walk the streets of Wilcannia, meet locals and get a bit of a feel for the place. Wilcannia has had its problems and some problems remain, but perhaps the main difficulty the town faces is shrugging off the negative reputation which really impacts its economy.

Miss Barrett’s Café

Before leaving Wilcannia, we stop at Miss Barrett’s café. The owner is laying out freshly made slices and her scones are still warm. The outdoor tables provide a pleasant setting for our coffee and breakfast.

Coffee Shop Wilcannia

Miss Barrett’s

Wilcannia Council Chambers Heritage Building

More Wilcannia Heritage

Country people are only too willing to chat. A farm overseer, sitting at a nearby table explains what expenses are involved in feeding stock during this drought. Hay costs over $300 per tonne with each truck holding around 20 tonnes. On top of that, the fuel costs are $5 per kilometre. In some areas they have been trucking feed for two years.
Gaye is busy filling her Subaru Forester with parcels and mail. She lives in White Cliffs and does a mail run of over 3000 kilometres per week. Her previous home was Dee Why in Sydney and she came out here because “of the outback”. Gaye loves her job and the people she meets.

Topar

While Broken Hill is only 200km from Wilcannia, it is almost obligatory to stop when passing a roadside establishment in the middle of nowhere. Who knows what you will find or who you will meet.

Wilcannia to Broken Hill

Surprise Find

Wilcannia to Broken Hill

Dry Dry Dry

Large worn black letters on the corrugated iron roof advertise the Topar Hotel and we pull off the road onto the gravel apron. A sheep greets me, nudging his nose against my leg. He just arrived one day and now hangs around the Hotel enjoying the titbits fed to him by travellers and the hotel proprietor.

Little Topar Hotel

Little Topar Hotel

Little Topar Hotel

In the middle of nowhere

A truckie pulls in and orders lunch, settling his tab at the same time. Unfortunately, milkshakes are not on the menu. Ginger beer will have to do.

Broken Hill

“No Vacancy” signs hang outside the first few motels we drive past in Broken Hill. We get the last available room at The Royal Exchange Hotel, a step up from our accommodation so far. We also remember to adjust our watches to Central Standard Time.

Staying in Broken Hill for two nights, it’s a pleasure to have soft carpet, a large comfortable bed, full mini bar and room to move. The downside is that the street parking is limited to four hours during the day, but we intend getting out and about this doesn’t prove to be a problem.

Broken Hill Heritage

A photographer’s paradise

Aboriginal Broken Hill

Aboriginal History

When we ask for suggestions as to where to eat, the woman at the information centre looks us up and down, asks if we like “healthy food” and suggests The Silly Goat. Is it our age, our dress (walking gear) or our bearing that places us in a certain category of people? Whatever gives us away, the suggestion is perfect. The Silly Goat would not be out of place in Surry Hills in Sydney, except there, the tables would be closer together as space is at a premium.

After a good lunch and coffee, we set out to explore. There are two “not negotiable” items on my agenda, The Royal Flying Doctor Service (RFDS) and The School of the Air. Having bought our tickets to School of the Air for tomorrow morning we make drive to the RFDS via another place of interest.

Broken Hill Street Art

Street Art

Broken Hill Street Scene

Wandering the streets

The Miner’s Memorial site honours miners who died at work. The cause of death makes interesting reading. These often young men died from things as varied as suffocation, rock falls and even lead poisoning. People around me talk about how workplace safety has changed over the years.

Royal Flying Doctor Service

The Royal Flying Doctor Service is recognised as Australia’s most reputable charity. The visit is fascinating and provides insight into the challenges and isolation faced by those on the land. Interestingly, with the increase in grey nomads travelling outback roads, the need for the RFDS remains as necessary today as it was when communication and roads were less sophisticated.

Royal Flying Doctor Service

A Worthwhile Visit

Royal Flying Doctor Service

Ready for take off

A captivating display from around the 1950s demonstrates the interaction between a woman whose husband has had a accident and the RFDS radio operator. The woman assists the radio operator to determine the severity of the injuries and give advice on how to manage the situation.

It seems that the outback is a dangerous place. The rate of accidents, poisonings, suicide and child death from injury are much higher in rural areas than in cities. While our guide describes the aircraft in the hanger, a sound alerts him to the fact that a plane is about to take off. There is an emergency somewhere.

Day Five: Day in Broken Hill

This morning we are off to school, to discover how the Broken Hill School of the Air operates.

School of the Air

Isolated children learn by distance education. A supervisor has to oversee the children while they are “at school”. Often the mother supervises her children at school, but the Governess (or more affectionately the Govvie) could be anyone from a backpacker to a retired teacher.

Broken Hill School of the Air

School for isolated children

Pro Hart Gallery Broken Hill

Another Icon in Broken Hill

Our visit includes sitting in on a Kindergarten lesson. The children are reinforcing their letters, reading and writing. They use coloured pens and whiteboards which we (and the teacher) can see on a screen in front of us. The teacher demonstrates amazing patience. When we leave she repeats her class with another group of four or five kindy kids. I am exhausted just thinking about it.

One child left the school recently when the family left their farm. Another farmer sold all his stock and left on a planned 3-month trip around Australia a year early as there “is no reason to stay on the property”. The regular meetup of school families that usually takes place on one or other property was held in town this year because no farm had sufficient water to cater for such a large group of campers.

Broken Hill Street Scene

Street Detail

Victorian Ironwork Broken Hill

Victorian Ironwork

This road trip is as much a learning experience as a break from my usual routine. I am finding out so much about the often harsh realities of country life, and discovering that in spite of their difficulties, many would never leave the land. Country people are friendly. They take time to chat and have the time of day. They help each other out. City folk could learn a thing or two out here.

Living Desert

Driving to Broken Hill is one way to experience the desert. Another way is to walk through it. The “Living Desert”, 12km from the City of Broken Hill is unique reserve with walking tracks, scenic lookouts, native plants and geological information.

Here all is silent apart from the annoying flies buzzing around my head, the occasional bird call and wind whistling through the bush. The land is harsh and visitors are advised to wear a hat, use sunscreen and take water. Closed shoes are a good idea too.

Living Desert Broken Hill

Living Desert

Living Desert Broken Hill

Totems in Living Desert

We walk along the Cultural and Flora trails, find the Aboriginal etchings and climb the hill to the sculptures. Fifty-three tonnes of sandstone were transported the Living Desert Reserve for a sculpture project that began in April 1993. Artists from Syria, Mexico, Georgia and Australia transformed their large slabs of sandstone into works of art.

One unfinished work (of a bird reaching up to the sky) was particularly moving. The artist left the site early, his work incomplete, to meet his new-born baby. His baby died, her life like the sculpture unfinished.

Sculptures in Living Desert

Sandstone Sculptures

Day Six: Broken Hill to Menindee

Before leaving Broken Hill for Menindee we walk the Heritage Trail around town and take a drive around the back streets. There is also the small matter of a slow leak in one of our tyres.

While waiting for our tyre to be fixed, we chat with the owner. The conversation soon turns to the water situation. He is angry and tells us that the corruption of politicians will be the end of Broken Hill and Menindee. It is not the first time we hear this, nor will it be the last.

Beautiful Ironwork

Houses of Broken Hill

Another old house

Bell’s Milk Bar

On our way out of Broken Hill we detour to look for a particular Heritage Milk Bar mentioned on the map. My map reading fails me and we almost give up. On finding a little group of shops we stop for a look around, poking around an antique shop and buying a newspaper from the Newsagent (whose shop is for sale). Only then do we realise that the place where we hope to get a milkshake is actually the Milk Bar we were looking for.

Bell's Milk Bar Broken Hill

Bell’s Interior

Bell's Milk Bar Broken Hill

Old Style

Bells Milk Bar is a step back into the 1950s. Rockabilly music plays on the juke box. Jars of coloured Bells Handmade cordial line the shelves. The museum is a treasure trove of retro furniture and nick nacks. Customers smile to themselves and at each other as they recall the milk bars of their youth. It is so long since I enjoyed a malted vanilla milkshake. Together with a large melting moment, it is a real moment of decadence before leaving Broken Hill for Menindee.

Menindee

Just outside Menindee, is a turn off to Menindee Lake Lookout. Three Crosses on the side of the road decry the death of tourism and jobs. Cows graze the sparse grass at the water’s edge near the lookout. This small ‘dam’ of water all that is left of a once flourishing lake. Beyond the grey green water is flat brown dirt. No water sports are possible today.

Menindee Lake Lookout

Menindee Lake Lookout

Menindee Lake Lookout

There’s less water than you think.

The shallow grey water in Pamamaroo lake laps around dead tree trunks. There is a feeling of hopelessness and despair. Locals in the pub talk about the “thieves who steal the water”. About how water licenses were given away to properties up North, how flood mitigation activities have benefited cotton stations and how “cotton isn’t food”. Cubbie Station is not mentioned by name but implied in every conversation.

A walk around Menindee doesn’t take long. There is not much to see and even fewer people around. A young Aboriginal man walks towards us, pulling his hoodie over his head before he passes. The pharmacist explains that he is a locum and will be finishing up here soon. He enjoys the variety of working in different towns.

Menindee Lakes

Pamamaroo Lake

Menindee Home

Home in Menindee

Menindee Locals

Dinner is a very pleasant fish and chips over the road at the Maidens Hotel. It’s Friday night and there’s a meat raffle and plenty of camaraderie. We chat to Woody who tells us he has sold all his cattle and has “been killing sheep all day”. He says “These people are hurting. They are doing it tough”.

Around locals agree that there is a drought but are angry at government decisions that (according to the locals) directly affect their livelihood. Locals talk about the absurdity of a new water pipe project that’s costing millions when there is already a pipeline “it’s called a river” they say.

Menindee Street Art

Menindee Street Art

Aboriginal Art Menindee

Aboriginal Art Menindee

When I mention how nice the sense of community is here he says “that’s all that’s left. We used to have water. There is no water. We used to have grapes. There are no grapes”

Day Seven: Menindee to Cobar

On the way out of Menindee row upon row of dead grape vines twist around trellises. Dust catches the light as it swirls in front of the car in the strong breeze. Kangaroos are still up and about in the cool of the early morning. They stand alert with their ears pricked, watching as we drive past or gracefully hop across the dry land in groups of two or three.

Menindee to Cobar

Menindee to Cobar

Kangaroo on the road

Can you see him?

Conversation turns to climate change. It is obvious out here. A question arises. Are these farms still viable, or is the area suitable for farming shrinking? Whatever the answer, I feel sad for the farmers out here whose situation seems hopeless.

Emmdale RoadHouse

This time we stop at Emmdale Roadhouse for breakfast. The proprietor chats about the difficulties she has keeping staff for any length of time. She is continually training new staff. The young Englishman has been working here for 9 days now. He will leave soon for Sydney. Two French girls, with no English didn’t last long. Life in the outback is wearing thin for this woman.

Mt Grenfell Historic Site

The turn off to Mt Grenfell Historic Site is a few kms before Cobar. We are the only car on the road and more than once, I wonder if we are on the right track. A couple of farms seem deserted. There is no farming equipment in the yard and no car in the shed.

Mt Grenfell Historic Site

Walking to the rock art

Mt Grenfell Historic Site

The artwork is slowly deteriorating

At last we come to the entrance to the historic site. A woman sits on the ground under a shelter with two primary school aged children. We park nearby, ensure that we have hats and water and set off on the dirt track. The track is easy to follow and after a while we arrive at the site of Aboriginal rock art. The artwork is fenced off to protect it from human hands and animals rubbing against it.

The woman we saw earlier is coming towards us. She is teaching her grandchildren their story. She offers to show me a cave I have missed. As it’s “women’s business”, hubby can’t join us. She explains some of the meanings behind the paintings.

She explains how her grandfather was the last of the elders to be initiated into the local Aboriginal “law” and that only people who have passed through their tribes’ ceremony can maintain Aboriginal paintings and carvings. As there is no one left, these paintings will gradually deteriorate and disappear.

Cobar

Tonight, we are staying in Cobar. The Great Western Hotel lays claim to the longest hotel verandah (100 yards) in Australia. I walk into the bar looking for a room. Four schooners of beer stand in a line on the bar which extends away from me. Four pairs of eyes turn in unison towards me. A young backpacker shows me a room. At $80 a night, it is basic but will do.

Great Western Hotel Cobar

Cheap accommodation

Main Street Cobar

Main Street Cobar

With nothing better to do, I go to the local Talent Show at the RSL. The show is to raise money for the RSL. Interestingly, here locals staff the bar. During a break, the MC urges the audience to “get a drink, spend $50 on the pokies or have a go at the TAB”. This encouragement to drink and gamble in the guise of increasing spending at the RSL worries me.

Cobar

More of Cobar

Cobar Town Hall

Cobar Town Hall

Day Eight: Cobar to Orange

With a push, we could get home tonight, but I resist. After all this trip is about taking our time and slowing down. Unfortunately, we don’t have sufficient time to take a different road home. Instead, we leap frog places we stayed on the way to Broken Hill and plan to do a another route next time.

Mart’s Café in Nyngan is closed and we go next door. A farmer at the next table tells us that he cannot buy hay  anywhere around Dubbo adding that the last load he bought had no nutrition left in it at all. The supplier removed all the heads.

Farm Stall Broken Hill to Sydney

Farm Stall

Wellington NSW

In Wellington

There’s a farm stall outside Narromine. The apples and oranges look delicious. We put our money in the honesty box and drive on.

Much of Wellington is closed up. It is Sunday after all. After a brief photo stop we drive on. It is cold and windy and light showers and small hail wet the windscreen.

Orange

As luck would have it a guesthouse on the outskirts of Orange has a room available. Duntryleague is a restored mansion on the Orange Golf Course. It seems quite reasonable at $146 for a queen room with continental breakfast. Not wanting to venture out in the cold, dinner is a pleasant meal in the Golf Club.

Broken Hill to Sydney via Orange

On the way to Orange

Broken Hill to Sydney via Orange

Unfortunately closed

Day Nine: Orange to Sydney

The drive from Orange to Sydney is uneventful and yet there is plenty to observe and compare with the drives of the previous few days. The traffic gradually increases as we approach the city. Hedges are trimmed, gardens neat and farm houses well maintained. There seems to be more money around here. There has also been a little rain and green shoots provide a welcome relief from the stark soil of the desert. Unfortunately nothing has fallen where it is most needed.

Duntryleague

Duntryleague

In Summary

An eight-night, nine-day road trip from Sydney to Broken Hill and back, while better than nothing, it really only scratches the surface. For me the journey is about taking time to stop, to chat to people and to learn about a life very different from mine. I hope to return and spend more time in the not too distant future.

Tips for a Trip to the Outback

General tips:-

  • Pack more carefully than I did. White is totally impractical in the dust and the white T-shirts stayed in my bag
  • Long pants and closed shoes are more comfortable when walking on dirt tracks. I never wore my walking sandals
  • It is best to visit when the weather is dry. Roads are often impassable in the wet
  • The weather is comfortable towards the end of Winter. Day temperatures are not too hot but it can be cold at night. It must be unbearably hot in summer
  • Although we didn’t pre-book accommodation we always found a bed. It is not always so. In the smaller towns and event or even roadworks can book out accommodation with travellers or workers
  • Try not to drive at dawn and dusk. The kangaroos are active then and jump in front of cars

Dubbo

  • Brochures of the Heritage Trails are available from the Information Centre.
  • For more on Old Dubbo Gaol click here
  • For more on Western Plains Zoo click here

Narromine

  • Narromine Aviation Museum information can be obtained here

Nyngan

  • Information on the Mid-state Shearing Shed can be found here
  • Information on the Nyngan Museum can be accessed here
  • Have a look at the Nyngan Region Visitors Guide (from the Museum) or here
  • Mart’s Café is open from 5:30 to 4:00pm every day except Sunday
  • Information on the Nyngan Photovoltaic Solar Plant is available here

Cobar

  • More about the Fort Bourke Lookout is available here

Broken Hill

  • School of the Air – book the day before at the Broken Hill Information Centre
  • Bells Milk Bar and Museum – 160 Patten Street South Broken Hill
  • There is a small entrance fee payable on entering The Living Desert – correct change or credit card required. More information here

Comments

    1. Author

      Thanks so much for the information Lydia. I’ve checked it is Matt Adnate who painted the portrait of a young Aboriginal girl and Pearl Gibbs, Aboriginal activist for BOOM Dubbo.

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